In their final meeting of the regular season at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and Devils took their bitter rivalry to another level.
Three seconds after the puck was dropped, a brawl erupted with the Rangers' Brandon Prust, Mike Rupp and Stu Bickel fighting the Devils' Cam Janssen, Eric Boulton and Ryan Carter, respectively, in a contest that yielded 56 penalty minutes. Bickel took the ice in that game at his usual position of defenseman, but moved up to take the opening faceoff in order to drop the gloves with Carter.
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal started Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Capitals Saturday, a 2-1 Rangers' victory that set up a conference finals matchup with the Devils that gets started Monday night in New York. Can Staal, who has two fighting majors in five seasons, imagine himself taking part in a six-man rumble in Game 1 against the Devils?
"I doubt it," Staal said with a laugh. "It's a little different in the playoffs, so I don't think that's going to happen."
The odds of seeing a matchup that produced 22 fighting majors and 226 penalty minutes in six games this season contain that same pugnacity in the postseason are lessened with professional pugilists Cam Janssen and Eric Boulton serving as healthy scratches. That shouldn't diminish what is one of the NHL's more intense and bitter rivalries between players who have openly admitted their hatred for each other throughout their careers.
The Rangers won the season series by virtue of earning one more point, but each team won three games. The Devils won in a shootout Jan. 31 by beating backup goaltender Martin Biron, who was given the start in place of Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist after his busy All-Star weekend in Ottawa.
The night off snapped a string of 32 straight starts against the Devils for Lundqvist, who owns a 25-11-5 record, 1.79 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in 41 games against New Jersey and won't be getting any breathers with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
"They're a great team," Lundqvist said. "We face them a lot so we know what to expect. It's going be a good series."
Both the Rangers and Devils vanquished their first-round opponents in seven games, but the Devils earned some much-needed rest by eliminating the Flyers in five games in the conference semifinals Wednesday. The Rangers once again needed seven games to send the Capitals home in the second round, so a break just wasn't in the cards.
That's perfectly fine with Rangers center Brad Richards.
"We don't really have a choice, but we're ready to go," Richards said. "We're excited, especially after a big win, we want to get right at it. Rest is always nice, but we can't talk about because it's just imagining something that just doesn't matter. We're playing Monday and getting right back to it."
This will be the sixth time the Rangers and Devils battle in the postseason and second time they meet with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. The Rangers rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the conference finals in 1994 to win the series and eventually beat the Canucks in seven games to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940.
The only player on either team still around from that series is Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who was 22 years old then and just turned 40 last week. Since the end of the 1993-94 season, the Devils have won three Stanley Cups and 99 playoff games compared to the Rangers' zero Cups and 39 playoffs victories.
There are equal parts history and venom between these teams that are separated by 14 miles and the Hudson River, and they'll write what should be another acrimonious chapter in their antagonistic duel starting Monday night.
"It's going to be intense," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "They always play us hard, we play them hard. There's no love lost between us. It's going to be a good series. I'm excited for it. I think the fans should be excited for it. It's going to be fun."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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